Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Leadership Lessons from the Mithali Raj Case

There are lessons to learn from the episodes of the past few weeks concerning the Indian women's cricket team and its handling of Mithali Raj, one of the most prolific batswoman not just in India but in the world, one with decades of experience as a player and captain, one who has seen the ups and downs of women's cricket from the time it was out in the wild till now when it is finally seeing some exposure and money.

Mithali was dropped from the team midway through the T20 World Championship, despite performing well. The reasons given by the coach are that she was dividing the team and was bad for its morale. The reason given by captain Harmanpreet is that the team took a decision to leave her out. Their reasons might have sounded convincing if they had won after dropping her, but unfortunately, they lost the semis badly and guess what, thanks to a batting failure. With such bad vibes in the dressing room, obviously, things are not going to go any other way.

Now this could well be a situation in any team - corporate or otherwise. A very senior member is part of the team. A young leader has taken over the reins. She is being helped by another professional who is trying to make his own mark. The pressure of the senior player's presence certainly is felt by everyone. But the decision is not straightforward because of two reasons 1) she is performing well for the team 2) their discomfort could well be a sign of insecurity more than anything to do with the senior player. The captain and his support staff may feel it is better for the team if the senior is not there. Harsh decisions may be taken. But as in all cases, any harsh decision comes from an insecure mind.

How does one handle such situations? What really is 'best interests of the team'? What is the role of the captain? What is the role of the coach? And what is most important? Let's consider a few issues from the Indian women's team based on what we know. At this point what we know is enough.

Leadership and team management lessons to learn from this episode

1. When a Senior Player (legend) is picked in the 15, don't drop them
When a performing senior player and a legend at that, is in the 15, you cannot drop her unless there is an injury or some other problem. It's in bad taste. It shows no grace. It shows narrow-minded and near-sightedness. Imagine Sunil Gavaskar Sachin or Kapil Dev being in the fifteen, scoring runs, and then being dropped in the semi-finals of a World Cup? (Kapil, unfortunately, was dropped for playing 'a bad shot' once - the only time he was dropped. One can imagine the pettiness of the people concerned.)

Whoever was party to the decision of dropping Mithali, the coach, captain and the selector, need to be first counselled, perhaps sacked even. Not for intent - no one wants to lose games - but simply for lack of common grace, common sense and acting against the interests of the team because such decisions mess up the team morale. And mind you,  Mithali didn't leave the team midway, nor made any press statements. (Navjyot Sidhu actually left once in the middle of a tour in a huff and got  away.)

Even if someone so senior had to be dropped, they have to be taken into confidence, explained the situation, and found a way to go about it so the team wins in the end. Not by dropping her like a hot potato. For just not following common procedures of grace and dignity, the people concerned must be removed.

2. It's the Coach's and Captain's Job to Maintain Good Dressing Room Atmosphere
The main job of a Coach and the Captain is to maintain a good dressing room atmosphere. A good dressing room atmosphere will help in getting better performances from the team. This means that the Coach and Captain cannot afford to get personal and take sides. They have to rise above, talk to players concerned and get them together as a unit. Not behave like dictators.

Even considering a scenario that Mithali spoke roughly to Powar, it is his job to defuse the situation and get the best out of her. That is his chief role as a Coach. It gets downright petty if all he does is get down to, she said this, she threatened this. Manage it dude. That's your job. Not mess it up further.

And the same goes for Harmanpreet and Smrithi. If you cannot get the team together as a leader, you are acting against the team's interest. I will fully absolve Mithali here because she is only a player here. It's for the leadership to get the best out of her.

If they have not, they have failed. Not just themselves but the team.

2. The team is the Basic Unit, not Players, not Support Staff
It is the team that is the basic unit. Not individual players, not support staff like the coach. The one responsible for maintaining the unity of the team is the Coach, and the Captain. Unfortunately, in this case, both are acting on one side and isolating a player, a senior one and a diva at that. Clearly, they are derelicting their duty, not her.

3. Leave Room for Graceful Resolution
By writing letters to the BCCI in undue haste recommending Ramesh Powar whose reputation is not great at this point, (simply because he did not display tact, nor man management capacities, and further took sides and isolated a senior like Mithali) Harmanpreet and Smrithi have done two things. 1) Left no room to maneuver for Mithali and the selectors 2) chosen to go out of their way to take sides. It's us and Powar versus Mithali is their message. Now consider a scenario if Mithali is selected and Ramesh Powar is not, how will they go ahead and play together? Did they even think of that? Or are they so hot-headed and full of arrogance that they will take such a situation head on? In the situation, who is messing up the team?

They are young and need to be counseled. That is the job of the seniors in the administration. But the seniors, like the Coach, selector, BCCI administrator in charge of women's cricket, left them to dry. They are not doing their job.

4. The Coach is not Permanent - Your Team Is
As Sanjay Manjrekar mentioned in his tweet, the coach is not the end all in a team - she is just a support cast. The team is the end all. If the captain starts relying on the coach more than her team and her resources, it's time that the captain needs to be relooked at. If this is the extent of her man management skills and team binding skills, the selectors should look elsewhere until she learns better.

Harmanpreet's job is to get the best out of her resources. She failed.

5. The Wise Men at the Top Should Nip Such Troubles in the Bud
The BCCI should not have allowed this story to escalate this far. If the people concerned have any grace, any administrative sense, they would have been clued into the dynamics in the team and ensured that Mithali either played (or had a graceful exit) and ended the story then. By letting these decisions be taken by people who are not equipped to see beyond themselves, who do not have the foresight to see what lies beyond their decisions, they have let this situation snowball into something so big. Saba Karim should take the blame for this as the person in charge of women's cricket.

Even now the BCCI should step in and negotiate between these egos - sack Powar, get the girls together and talk some sense. A stronger and more sensible administration would have sorted this out long ago. Instead, we have at the helm a tainted CEO who is hanging on despite serious allegations of sexual harassment, who is backed by the CoA which has done no credit to itself by its handling of several things. So one cannot expect much there but more dereliction of duty and perhaps even more mischief as is obvious in the leaking of the letters that the girls have written to the BCCI. Now, will someone be accountable for leaking all this information out to the press?

Anything can be achieved they null, if you can put your ego aside. Here is a clear case of egos at clash. Leadership is about managing these egos and getting the best out of the team and winning. Not
coming back with excuses and sob stories.

Which is why the leadership team must be sacked, in the Indian women's cricket team and the BCCI, until they learn their job. Someone should be made accountable for this mess. This is not about Mithali Raj, it's about the process.

When things go bad, in any organization, the heads at the top should roll. Else it's the same old wine in a new bottle. Which means that the results will continue to be similar. It's time to wake up when so many aspects of the process are flouted and no one is held accountable.

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